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Witness to Darfur horrors will speak

An activist hopes to aid refugees, the victims of genocide in the Sudan.

By WAVENEY ANN MOORE
Published June 14, 2006


ST. PETERSBURG - Rebecca Hamilton says she saw firsthand the horror of genocide when she traveled to the Sudan to work with refugees.

It's what she will share during a talk Thursday at the Florida Holocaust Museum. She also will speak about what ordinary people can do to help stop the killing and prevent similar atrocities in the future.

"There are things that the average individual citizen can do to make a difference to people who are facing genocidal violence in Darfur,'' Hamilton said.

"Over 300,000 have died already and nearly 3-million have been displaced and I think we lose sight of what that means. Behind those numbers are individual stories. Sudan is the country that has the largest number of internally displaced people in the world.''

The genocide in Sudan's Darfur region, where government-backed Arab militias, or Janjaweed, are destroying communities of African descent, is just the latest in humanity's history of systematic killings of a disfavored group.

A peace agreement signed in May has failed to end the conflict that began in 2003.

Hamilton, 29, is a student at Harvard law school. She also is earning her master's degree in public policy at Harvard's John F. Kennedy school of government. She is speaking during the Holocaust Museum's annual summer institute for teachers. The theme is "Human Rights and Genocide.'' Her talk will be open to the public.

Hamilton was invited to St. Petersburg by Noreen Brand, director of curatorial affairs at the museum.

"I heard her speak at Harvard University during the conference on the legacy of Nuremberg in November and I was so impressed with her and her dedication to what she is doing,'' Brand said. "The work she's doing on Darfur is so important.''

Hamilton first went to Sudan in 2004, the year after she started at Harvard. She worked on a plan to help thousands of displaced people return to their homes and was so moved by their plight that she returned to the United States intent on harnessing the resources at Harvard University on their behalf.

She co-founded the Harvard Darfur Action Group.

"That really was at the beginning of the student movement for Darfur,'' she said, adding that other universities soon followed.

The group mobilized students to condemn the genocide and urged the U.S. government to do likewise.

It also raised money to support the African Union peacekeeping force in Darfur, and helped prod Harvard's decision to divest from companies that supported the Sudanese government.

"This is the focus, on protection,'' Hamilton said during a telephone interview. She is working to build a permanent antigenocide constituency in this country, the Genocide Intervention Network (www.genocideintervention.net.)

The plan is "to build a grass roots constituency that's linked to votes. You want to link your members to specific congressional districts and force change that way,'' she explained.

Recently the Harvard student testified before the Massachusetts state legislature in favor of a bill to divest state pension funds from companies doing business with the Sudan. That legislation is pending, she said.

Hamilton, who is Australian and is a graduate of the University of Sydney, said she first worked with refugees in Australia. She is concerned that people don't understand the situation in Sudan.

"I think one of the largest problems is that we continue to think that this is a humanitarian problem. We think we can send food aid,'' she said.

While food is important, civilians must be protected from being murdered, she said.

The 7,300-strong African Union peacekeeping force is grossly underfunded "and not given nearly enough support to carry out their mandate,'' Hamilton said.

She has little faith in the recent peace agreement.

If you go: Rebecca Hamilton will speak 7 to 8:30 p.m. Thursday at the Florida Holocaust Museum, 55 Fifth St. S, St. Petersburg. The museum will open to the public at 6 p.m. The cost to nonmembers is $8. Free for members.